How fitting that Louis Armstrong claimed July 4, 1900, as his birth date. Maybe he knew that Aug. 4, 1901, was his actual birth date. Maybe he didn’t. On the website of New York City’s Louis Armstrong House museum, July 4 is referred to as his “traditional birthday.”
It should be his birthday because he, better than anyone, represents the dawn of an American century. Because in our American mythology, his life symbolizes all of our nation’s struggles and all of its glories.
In the poverty of his childhood in New Orleans, when he was learning the trumpet at the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys, any notions of artistic triumph and international fame had to have been more than distant. But when his genius and drive allowed him to find that fame and remain a star for his entire adult life, the July 4 birth date aligned perfectly with the narrative he wrote for himself.
After King Oliver, Armstrong’s great mentor, brought him to Chicago to join the Creole Jazz Band in 1922 and play second cornet, Oliver soon let others in the band know that Armstrong’s musicianship had already surpassed his.
Louis Armstrong created a new sound on the trumpet. In a most American sort of way, he established the primacy of the solo performer in jazz as it became America’s popular music for decades. Early in his recording career, the manufacturing and distribution methods of the time could not keep up with the demand for his records. They sold out immediately upon arrival at stores.
But while his fame was a constant for so much of his life, it provided no escape from America’s racial dilemma. Segregation, by law or by custom, was a fact of life for all black Americans, in the South and in the the North. It was the reality for sharecroppers. It was the reality for wealthy international stars.
His audiences were often segregated during much of his career, and he performed in venues where he would not be welcome as a patron. Later in life, he would decline invitations to New York clubs and restaurants because he still carried the hurt of those experiences from years past.
His public persona most often reflected exuberance and good cheer. His performance style exuded happiness. So, at times, particularly during the modern civil rights era, he attracted derision from blacks who equated aspects of his performances to minstrelsy. Early in his career, some of his film appearances were in scenes that contained what we would view today as outrageous stereotypes.
But the truth was that no one was prouder of his race than Louis Armstrong. In what we are told is the American tradition, he took public stands when other prominent blacks did not.
In 1957, he was one of the only black stars to object to President Eisenhower’s handling of the school desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Ark. He said Eisenhower’s initial inaction when it came to protecting black high school students showed him to be “gutless.” Armstrong publicly expressed disgust that Eisenhower would not do more to thwart the actions of segregationist Gov. Orval Faubus, whom Armstrong referred to as an “uneducated plowboy.”
Scheduled that year to undertake a government-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union, Armstrong withdrew. “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” Armstrong said.
In 1965, he told the news media he became “physically ill” upon watching how the marchers in Selma, Ala., were brutalized on what became known as Bloody Sunday. Again, he had the courage to question whether his country had any interest in protecting the rights and the lives of its black citizens.
But weeks later, he agreed to lead his band, the All Stars, on a State Department-sponsored goodwill tour behind the Iron Curtain, the region then controlled by the Soviet Union. His second stop was East Berlin.
While there, he deflected questions from reporters. He was aware that Eastern Bloc countries would be eager to use any criticism of the racial climate in the United States for propaganda purposes.
But he found his own way of making a statement. He included a song in the performance that hadn’t recently been part of the band’s repertoire. Over his career, he seemed to bring the song out when it would have particular resonance.
He had performed it on another goodwill visit, that time in Ghana in 1960, with a tearful Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah in the audience, just three years after the nation gained independence from British colonization.
So in East Berlin, Louis Armstrong and his All Stars played the Fats Waller composition, “Black and Blue.”
Armstrong sang: “How would it end? Ain’t got a friend. My only sin is in my skin. What did I do to be so black and blue?”
Mark Allan Williams is a writer living in Baltimore. His essays examine issues of culture, politics and race.